Southern African civil society groups must forge a new role given the fact that the region’s dominant liberation and opposition parties-turned-governments, although still in power, are facing multiple crises of authority, moral legitimacy and relevance.
The failures of many southern African governing political parties have combined over time to cause a wide social gap between ruling elites and ordinary citizens.
Many southern African citizens have not only lost all trust in the leadership of governing parties, they have also lost confidence in many of the leadership elites across all sectors of societies.
The loss of trust by the bulk of their populations has now turned into a “social force” in itself, to paraphrase Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci. This new “social force” of dissatisfaction is leaderless.
The symptoms of this new “social force” can be seen in spontaneous public protests against unaccountable public and elected representatives across the region. But it often also has uglier manifestations, in the form of xenophobic attacks, violence and looting, tribalism and religious fundamentalism that we are increasingly witnessing.
Unless new, wise leadership emerges to direct this new “social force” of dissatisfaction, it could turn towards populism, religious and ethnic fundamentalism.
The rise of Islamist fundamentalist groups is precisely because of the failures of governing parties and because there has been no alternative leadership to the “social force” of dissatisfaction.
The decline in the authority, moral legitimacy and relevance of southern Africa’s governing parties and leaders, and the concomitant rise in the mass “social force” of citizen dissatisfaction have been building up over a long period.
Yet, the governing parties and leaders are still spectacularly self-confident, dismissive and unresponsive to the changes in mass attitudes of citizens.
If civil society groups do nothing or continue with business as usual, they may become irrelevant.
They may still get funding from foreign donors, and continue to exist, delivering programmes on the basis of donors’ prescriptions. Or they may continue issuing press statements, organising conferences and summits. They may continue to be information-sharing platforms and react to Southern African Development Community summits, policy statements and pronouncements.
Continuing on such a trajectory will mean that they will not be able to substantially influence governing parties and leaders; neither will they be able to set the agenda, or influence the new “social force” of mass dissatisfaction abroad, in many southern African countries.
In fact, civil society will be relegated to the margins of the current dramatic societal change.
Many civil society organisations mimic the behaviour of governing parties and leaders. Some exhibit patriarchy, centralised decision-making and personal cults.
They must set exemplary examples in their internal organisations: gender equality, consultative decision-making and prudent management of resources.
Some civil society groups exist for no reason but to implement donors’ programmes – having no real content, or relevant independent programmes of their own. If donors withdraw they will have no rationale to exist.
To remain relevant, civil society groups will have to become the partners of the mass “social force” of dissatisfaction. They will have to partner with ordinary citizens and communities at grassroots level for them to assert their democratic rights, hold governments and business accountable, and to build sustainable livelihoods, even if it means separately from failing governing parties and leaders.
For civil society to remain relevant in the rapidly changing political, economic and social environment in southern Africa, it will have to do a better, smarter and more imaginative job of providing democratic oversight, supporting democrats in and outside government and democratic institutions, push for democratic change, and isolate corrupt public representatives.
Civil society will have to start to influence the public discourse on the kinds of democracy, the kind of livelihoods and the kind of African cultures that will genuinely bring dignity, development and peace to the masses.
Failing governing parties, leaders and their equally deficient allied elites – whether traditional leaders or heads of other sectors of society – continue to set the public agenda on the nature of democracy, development and culture in their countries.
Not surprisingly, in most cases, it is of the most patriarchal, narrow and self-serving kind.
Civil society groups must begin to set the public debate and agenda on what should be the nature of inclusive democracy, development and culture in the region. As a start, it must provide the new leadership to southern Africa’s new “social force” of mass dissatisfaction over the failure of governing parties.
There are a number of options for civil society groups. One is for civil society groups and activists to take over governing parties – take over their leaderships, bring in new policies and new ideas.
This has successfully happened in many other societies in crisis – especially following World War II – from Western Europe to Southeast Asia. The creation of the social democratic welfare states of Western Europe and the East Asian developmental states were examples of the successes of such an approach.
Another option would be for civil society groups to form their own political parties – with more responsive leaders, policies and actions. Many of Africa’s first-generation liberation movements and some of its opposition parties – who are now failing – were all formed by civil society.
Civil society could try to co-govern with governing parties and leaders, through democratic social pacts among civil society, government, business and communities. This could take place at national, local or sectoral levels.
Africa’s state is in crisis – corrupt, inefficient and wasteful.
Democratic social pacts between the government, business, labour, civil society and communities could improve the capacity of the state.
Civil society could also begin to create alternative forms of government, based on social justice, which run parallel to unaccountable governments.
In most southern African countries, with governments failing to deliver effective public services and to protect people, ordinary citizens are already pursuing alternative governance systems.
Civil society could for example, build its own social enterprises in partnerships to get vulnerable communities to provide their own food, products and “public” services and ultimately to sell any surplus. These social enterprises could be in the areas where public services are not working: for example, community-driven water sanitation; renewable energy and education provisions; or agricultural production.
Civil society can then push for the products or services of these social enterprises to be inserted into the supply chains of big business, whether state, local, private or foreign ones.
During the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggles, progressive religious civil society groups often served as alternative public service providers to the oppressed: they provided bursaries, ran schools and produced goods and agriculture.
To find such new roles for itself in the rapidly changing political, economic and social environment in southern Africa, civil society will have to become less ideologically rigid, more pragmatic and more imaginative.